Velella's Drift

An account of Velella's voyage from Seattle to New York via Panama, 2009-2011

Archive for Leg 2

Hollywood Makes An Offer

To those of you checking Velella’s Drift, I apologize for our infrequent updates. Meghan is working a couple days a week at West Marine. I’m unemployed, living as cheaply as possible. Last weekend we did get to sail to Catalina Island with Ricky, my friend from high school, and his wife Mara. This time, instead of going to the crowded Hood River-esque Avalon, we sailed to the tiny town of Two Harbors. There were no paved roads, and the whole town seemed comprised of small wooden one-bedroom houses. Spotted with palm trees and surrounded by steep, green hills, it felt more like Costa Rica than Southern California. It was our first sailing excursion since early December and, aside from the below story, our only new adventure.

Meghan’s West Marine store is one of the company’s flagship locations. It’s larger than most West Marines and a bit nicer. Not surprisingly, Meghan meets a lot of boaters while she works. Rich yachters routinely come in to drop a few boat bucks ($1,000s) on the new boating technology. She is on friendly terms with the father of Zac and Abbey Sunderland. And she’s come to know a wealthy Brazilian couple, Lucio and Renata.

The week before Ricky and Mara came to town was the first time I heard about Lucio and Renata. They had been coming in to West Marine nearly every day, outfitting their boat with the most expensive, state-of-the art equipment. Finally, Meghan asked them about their plans.

Renata told Meghan that they were putting together a crew of six people to sail from Los Angeles through the Panama Canal, leaving in November of 2010. Pleasantly surprised, Meghan told Renata about our own, similar plan. Renata elaborated a little more: This wasn’t just a sailing trip; they were also shooting a documentary! Meghan then chimed in about me, my film experience, and how maybe the two boats could sail together? Excited, the two girls exchanged numbers and agreed to get coffee.

When Meg first told me about it, I was skeptical. People come to LA because they want to act, write or direct. No one in LA is just working the nine to five: Everyone has a side project. They are scrambling to get into the business, working their way up the ladder, or else “taking time off to write”. I’ve worked enough gigs to know that every production assistant is also a writer, producer, director. So when Meghan told me about her new friend, I was tempted to chalk her excitement up to her newness in town. But she had a gut feeling, and how could I argue with that? I agreed to get coffee.

Coffee was on Monday at 11 am. I didn’t know what to expect, so I reviewed my qualifications in my head, prepping for an interview. I knew that Renata and Lucio were Brazilian, and I recognized them the moment they walked in. Renata was a little older than us with a thin, sweet face. She was as tall as me, with olive-tan skin and pixie-cropped hair. Lucio was in his sixties, with a prickly gray beard, glasses and a baseball hat. Both wore jeans and wool sweaters, his blue, hers orange.

They were very nice, and after a few awkward niceties, I bid them to unveil their project. Lucio needed little prompting. “Well,” he began with a Cheshire grin, “we are embarking on a new kind of fantasy epic, on the scale of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings.” For the next forty-five minutes, the two of them doled out small portions of their last five years of life. They talked a little about the sailing trip, a little about their personal philosophies, a little about their preparations, occasionally tying it all back in to their films. They clearly had a project of legendary scope in their heads but, like most artists, their explanation was hard to follow. Here’s what I pieced together:

1) Renata is independently wealthy. She owns property in Brazil with a house and a production studio.

2) Lucio and Renata plan to spend the next three years sailing down to the Caribbean, then sail over to Europe for a year, and then sail to Brazil.

3) On this trip, they plan to shoot three feature length films (a trilogy), and three documentaries.

4) They want a permanent crew of six people for the sailing trip, and plan to hire twelve additional crew members at every shooting location they stop.

5) Lucio worked as a director of photography for years. These movies are his vision and he plans to shoot and direct the movies. Renata is writing and scoring them.

6) These films star mostly children. The purpose of the films is not just to entertain, but also to showcase Lucio and Renata’s personal philosophy.

7) Their personal philosophy is a mix of classic western philosophy and new age religion. To the best of my understanding, they believe that the influence of media has estranged children from their true selves, which is destroying the planet and ruining families. The solution is to change the media, replacing it with classic philosophy.

8- The three feature films they’re shooting on this trip are only a prequel to the REAL and most important trilogy of films, which will begin shooting after the first three movies and three documentaries wrap.

9) They have a mysterious private benefactor who bought them a 52 foot sailboat and a production studio full of film equipment.

10) They have two actresses who are learning how to sail. They are looking for the last two members of their crew, which is why they invited Meghan and me out for coffee.

I was already overwhelmed. It was a lot of information to take in. Plus, Meghan and I had barely said anything about ourselves and our qualifications. How could they consider us as their fifth and sixth essential crew members? Meghan didn’t have any film experience and I had only PA and post-production experience. Nevertheless, their boat sounded awesome, so I asked if we could see it. They were more than happy to show us.

This was when I began to see that their story was legitimate. They had a 52’ brand new Island Packet center-cockpit cruiser. It was beautiful—straight off the showroom floor. There was a table on the stern deck for Caribbean lunches. The cabin was huge. It had two bedrooms and two bathrooms. When we entered, an electrician was working diligently to install all the latest high-tech gadgetry on the boat: A 6 camera surveillance system, a combination sonar/radar system, the world’s quietest generator imported from Europe. Not to mention a high definition projector and screen, so Lucio could watch the dailies (the film he shot during the day). Renata had her own office, with a keyboard for writing the score and an editing station for editing the documentaries. The boat was more than a yacht: It was a mobile production unit.

We had lunch in the cockpit. It was a simple European fare of bread, cheese, fruit and coca-cola in the bottle. Here Lucio and Renata laid out their rules for the trip: No smoking, no drugs, no alcohol, and no meat. Creating the right kind of atmosphere was very important to Lucio, and he wanted to make sure his crew was on the same page.

Also, no more than three people at a time would be on his 52’ sailboat. That meant Meghan and I would be taking a third crew member on our boat. But, Lucio explained, Meg, the two actresses and I would rotate back and forth between the two boats, which meant that Meghan would not always be able to be aboard Velella. Finally, Meghan and I would be expected to commit to the project for all three years. After sailing to Panama, we would forgo New York (‘You don’t want to go to New York,’ Renata told us. ‘It’s too crowded’). Instead, we would sail with them over to Scandinavia for a year, before heading back to Brazil. If we agreed they would trick out our boat, buying us a windvane, SSB radio, and whatever else we needed. Plus we’d be paid a monthly stipend. In addition, they would get us scuba certified, take us on kayaking trips, buy us iPhones, and pay for any classes we needed to prepare. Jaw dropped, we left the boat to go to their three apartments housing their production equipment.

I’ve PA’d on one reality TV show, one HBO documentary, two feature films, and one commercial. At this point, I have a good understanding of the equipment required to make a movie. Lucio and Renata had it all. I couldn’t believe it. We walked into their first apartment and I was immediately drawn to their editing studio. Three screens, a monitor, multiple bays. Then Lucio told me that that was his old station: He hadn’t used it in years. He showed me his new station, which was hooked up to 35 mm bay the size of a refrigerator box. ‘That’s for editing film,’ he explained. Renata showed us her composing studio, with two keyboards and multiple other instruments. Renata had just got her second BA at the UCLA for composing and they played for us some of her works, which were really great. They then went on to show us their DVD library, over a thousand movies available for reference, and their literature library, over a thousand classic books to draw upon for ideas and inspiration.

Their next apartment looked like a bomb had gone off. Two 35 mm Panasonic film cameras stood on tripods in the middle of the room. These were the real deal, the cameras used to shoot all major blockbusters. Scattered around was myriad of equipment: Lighting kits, electrical cabling, and five different dollies. Lucio explained his camera system to me. The two 35 mm cameras were for the feature films. He had a XL2 HD with a complete lens kit for the documentaries. THEN he had a system of five high-end HD canons that he could set up on remote control tripods so he could cover every angle. ‘This is the system George Lucas is currently experimenting with,’ he explained. ‘I figured if Lucas is using it, it will work for us.’

‘What I need from you is to learn all this equipment. I’ll pay for the best Hollywood professionals to train you. Then you can pick your role on set. Since you’ll know all the equipment, you’ll be in charge of hiring the additional crew whenever we’re shooting.’ I turned to Meghan, who was grinning at the size of my smile. ‘It would be like being paid to go to film school,’ I told her. ‘Except I’d be sailing around the world at the same time.’

At this point we were tired. It was five o’clock and we’d been presented with an overwhelming amount of information. However one piece of critical information remained: What were their movies about? Before I made any kind of decision, I wanted to read a script. If I was going to devote three years of my life towards a project, I had to feel some passion towards it. Renata and Luico looked at each other and smiled. Their script was their baby, not to be shared with just anyone. However we were clearly interested, so they invited us out to dinner.

If you are interested to learn more about their project, I would encourage you to check out their website, Meghan and I promised not to discuss their treatments with anyone which, as a writer, I completely understand. Meg and I read their story over dinner in concentrated silence. When we’d finished, I was the first to summarize my thoughts. ‘Wow. This is… ambitious. You’re going to make three film trilogies?’

Lucio smiled, encouraged. ‘Or four, maybe five. We’ll see.’

I recognized that Meg was feeling a bit overwhelmed. ‘I need some time to digest all this. I’m going to respond to you in a long email.’ Renata encouraged us to do so. For the next two hours, Meghan and I sat patiently as they parsed out their philosophy in bits, phrases and rhetorical questions:

‘Everything is made of energy.’ Renata picks up a glass. ‘This glass is made of energy. So why is it a glass?’

‘What do you get when you no longer have a beautiful family? A broken family.’

‘Children are the key; we have to start with them.’

‘What do you see when you’re sailing in the middle of the ocean? The Sky.’

‘Water is the ideal medium to bring out a child’s essence.’

‘None of this information is new, it’s just been forgotten.’

And so on, and so on. After a full ten hours spent with Lucio and Renata, we were ready to go home. They paid for dinner and we gratefully thanked them. A simple coffee date had turned into a life changing decision, and we needed time to think it over.


Meg and Andrew don’t believe me

In the span of a single second, I experienced what I am certain will be my greatest miracle on this trip. It happened this morning, and I am writing it down as soon as possible, to preserve as best I can that fantastical instance.

The experience was all the more remarkable for the rough times that preceded it. Two days ago, our weather again turned sour. We had pulled into Shelter Cove to escape the stormy seas, but the swell followed us into the tiny inlet. After several attempts to set the anchor (making sure we wouldn’t drift into the shore during the night), we threw our exhausted bodies down for some rest. However the pounding of the waves against Velella’s hull, combined with an hourly wake-up call to check our anchor, meant the night was sleepless and we’d begin Tuesday even more exhausted than before.

We awoke with the morning fog. In our previous experience, fog had burnt off after a couple hours. But this was San Francisco fog. We were still 100 miles from the city but already the coastal waters were covered in a permanent blanket. No amount of sun could penetrate them, so we slunk through the mist straining to see in the grey half-light.

As the day wore on, the seas picked up, giving our most difficult night yet. During my three hour watch, I counted the duration between the waves. Three seconds. That meant that every three seconds, Velella was getting rolled from the side by 4 to 8 foot waves. The continual battering quickly wore us down. Not even a strong cup of coffee was enough to warm me from the winds and the chilly wet air.

Sailboats are balanced for sailing. This means that, even when motoring, the ride can often be made more comfortable if there’s a bit of sail up. Since the wind had picked up during the night, Andrew (when he awoke for his 4 a.m. watch) and I decided to make a reefed mainsail. I turned the boat into the wind and Andrew began the task of tying in the reef knots. But the winds and the waves would allow us no peace. Our boom became stuck, because the winds had whipped our topping lift around the backstay, tangling it. With a grip still on the steering wheel, I unhooked it from the boom in an attempt to free it from the rigging.

Fighting the topping lift with one hand, and steering with the other, I was vaguely aware that the boat was turning away from the wind. An accidental jibe (the wind grabs the boom and slams it across the boat at speeds up to 100 miles an hour) is one of any sailor’s biggest fears. Fear rose in my chest. I noticed our boat turning further downwind, and I hurriedly tried to reattach the topping lift so I could get the boat back on course. But I wasn’t fast enough.

The wind caught hold of the mainsail. Before I could even blink, the boom rocketed past my face, slamming hard into the rigging on the opposite side of the boat. It ripped the topping lift out of my hand, lacerating two of my fingers. The topping lift swung back and forth around the mast, like a lethal pendulum. Andrew caught it. Badly shaken, the two of us agreed there would be no sailing tonight.

We had another evil omen at first dawn. The fog still clung around our boat, thicker than ever. On our radio, the Coast Guard was franticly searching for a boat. An unknown vessel had called out a mayday (the highest distress call) and then gone silent. Meghan woke me up, upset by the possible fate of the other boat’s crew. Exhausted by our foul conditions and spooked by the fog, we were all on edge as we motored through the ghostly clouds into harbor.

I was at the helm, nervous. I couldn’t see more than half a mile and I knew from the charts that the area north of us was shallow and rocky. Off our port side I noticed a huge wave crest and break on what looked like a rocky shoal the size of a small island.

“How am I doing guys? I’m seeing rocks on our left!” I shouted into the cabin.

Meghan and Andrew checked our chart plotter and came up, puzzled, reporting that there shouldn’t be any visible rocks. We looked again for my rock, but saw no sign of it.

“Shoot, I swore I saw something. I’m also exhausted” I admitted.

Andrew and Meghan went below, and I resumed my vigilant inspection of the horizon. I was caught off-guard when, beside our boat, a whale burst from the water.

On this trip, we’ve seen a half-dozen whales. I’ve seen whales broaching, displaying the small of their backs as they turn back into the water. I’ve seen whales sounding, flipping their tales out of the water as they dive into the deep. I’ve seen the mouths of whale feeding on krill, and I’ve seen whales slap the water with their fins to steer schools of fish. We have footage (which we will post, shortly) of a mother humpback and her calf feeding on krill at sunset. But nothing could compare to this.

I have never before seen the whale in full. The broaching whale does not do them justice. I had no idea the true enormity of the animals. If I had known how big they truly are, I would never have thought it possible for them to jump almost entirely out of the water. But the whale showed his full self, the length of him extending beyond multiple waves. If you have read Dune, it reminded me of Frank Hurbert’s description of the sand worms, for it was like a single serpentine coil rising out of the ground. It was like a Romantic-era mural of a whale hunt, an image that I did not think existed except in the mind of the artist. I now understand the ancient mariner’s fear of the Leviathan. The creature was larger than our boat and it had exploded out of the ocean, only to disappear a fraction of a second later.

“Holy SHIT!”

I released the steering wheel and fell into the cockpit. Meghan and Andrew ran up to see what had happened. I could only point to the spot on the ocean where the whale had disappeared, a giant ring of white foam. The three of us stood in the cockpit for what seemed like forever, but the beast did not resurface.

The Sailing Philosophy

Let me begin by saying that conditions are improving. Crew disposition improves with our weather. As we head south and the skies grow sunnier, so does our morale. Even with the morning fog, our current harbor in Eureka, CA is picturesque. Across the small marina where we are moored the waterway is lined with beautiful Victorian houses. Our boat sits next to a wildlife preserve, and we are but a small walk from verdant flora, deer and marsh waterfowl. The fiber of our trip improves with each line of latitude we cross.

We’ve also become more adept as a crew. In the beginning, our roles were fuzzy, leading to many overlaps and subsequent squabbles. Too many cooks in the kitchen rendered every decision, be it the choice of our next port to the proper tie of a knot, into excruciatingly long courtroom testimonials, with lengthy pleas before the jury, backed by evidence from our sailing literature, and plentiful time for rebuttals. Now we’ve accepted each other’s proficiencies. Tired of argument and growing ever more trusting, we’ve unofficially divided up the labor on the boat. Andrew, who races sailboats, is deferred to on matters of sail trim and knots. Meghan, inherently meticulous and, as a Captain, more knowledgeable of the seas than Andrew or myself is our navigator. She carefully plots our course, checking and re-checking the conditions ahead of us. Since I have spent the year trying to stay ahead of the upkeep on our Yanmar diesel engine (“Yannie”, as we affectionately refer to her as), I have become the resident mechanic, responsible for Yannie’s well-being and handling Velella whenever Yannie is run during precarious conditions (such as crossing a bar or docking).

Just as we have learned one another’s abilities, so have we learned what sailing is NOT. It is easy to imagine Velella on the ocean horizon, backed by the setting sun, sails stiff in the breeze. She cruises over the ocean swells at a solid six knots, her helmsman smiling as another philosophic truth is revealed (such conditions revealing eternal truths at the rate of approximately four per hour). This was my vision when I planned our trip. Learned truths, it turns out, are often more practical.

TRUTH #1: WATCH THE WEATHER. Perhaps this seems obvious. Of course a sailing vessel, being dependent on the wind, would need to pay attention to the location and availability of the wind. But in the beginning, it was not yet given its proper consideration. When we left Seattle, we looked at our course, and then determined how the weather might serve us. If we were trying to make it to Port Townsend, and there was wind on our beam, great! We could sail and the trip would be all the more comfortable. If there was no wind, we would motor and still make the same time. Weather was a supplemental consideration.

Now, weather is not just our method of transportation. It is the whole of our existence. It is our safety and our comfort. It affects our mood, our interactions with each other, even our outlook on life. It is the first thing we look at when we wake up and we check it every hour we are out at sea. More than any other topic, it sparks crew discussion and we each take our turn interpreting what the current prediction means for us, and whether it’s worth continuing onward. We don’t even consider going out if the wind is against our bow. If the forecast turns while we’re in port, it means an extended vacation wherever we are. If we’re at sea, it means we head for port as quick as possible.

This was learned the hard way, after getting stuck in two separate gales. A gale is defined by its 30 to 40 knot winds and, in our case, 10-12 foot seas. Without basis for comparison this will mean nothing to you, as it did for us initially. The difference between 6 foot swells and 10 foot swells might only be the difference of four feet, until you’ve been out in both. The night we powered through our first gale was the first time on this trip I was scared. We were making between 1 to 2 knots of headway, motoring over waves with a double reefed mainsail for stability. It was completely black, no moon, and steering in the cockpit meant being slammed from all sides by the power of the ocean. Every fifteen minutes Velella would hit a particularly large wave. My only forewarning would come immediately before we were hit, in the form of six foot high bioluminescent froth. It afforded just enough time to mutter one cursory swear word before thrusting me off my seat at the wheel. The boat, lifted up and pointed directly up into the night sky, would just as quickly rocket down, submerging our bow in the foot of the next wave. Underwater, our navigation lights lit the frothing ocean like a hotel Jacuzzi.

I was concerned for Meghan and Andrew, who I imagined bouncing around the cabin to the point of unconsciousness. But I the force of the boat would not allow me to leave the wheel, nor could I shout down to them over the wind. Though exhausted, Meghan was otherwise fine. In the morning she would relate to me the feeling of awakening from sleep in a state of weightlessness, levitating above the V-birth as the waves tossed the front of the boat into the air.

TRUTH #2: THE SAILING PHILOSOPHY. Our agreed-upon approach, as we began in Seattle, was to use the diesel engine as little as possible. Our sails being our primary and most comfortable method of power, this made sense. Plus the month which we gave ourselves to make it down the coast allowed time for a leisurely sailing pace of 3 to 4 knots. Who cares about speed, it’s the experience we were after!

Tied directly to the influence our weather has had over the trip, it the importance of speed. Though we must move quickly to San Francisco so Andrew can make his flight home on the 27th, our boat’s speed also determines our safety. Every port on the coast is only accessible at certain times. The tides, nightfall, ocean swell: Any of these conditions can limit our access to safe harbor. To make the distance from one port to the next, or to outrun an approaching front, motoring is necessary. Though preferable, sailing in low winds costs us 2-3 knots of speed. In an automobile this would mean nothing: But in a boat with an average speed of 4.5 knots, covering an average of 90 miles per stretch, it can mean the difference of days. Sailing has unfortunately become a luxury, supplementing Yannie’s admirable performance. Hopefully when we’re less crunched for time, and have the luxury of California breezes as opposed to Pacific Northwest storms, we’ll be able to go carbon-less and rely solely on our sails. Yet thus far we have yet to quit our addiction to fossil fuels.

TRUTH #3: MANAGING EXPECTATIONS. The trip improves as our expectations change. Not only is the weather becoming more “sailable” as we go south, but so are our ideas about the trip. We are better able to read the weather forecast, which plays a critical role in the experience. We don’t expect to sail every day, and it becomes a treat to shut the engine off and spend ten hours doing 8 knots on a following wind. We jumped into this trip on one of the hardest, most unforgiving coasts. The trip has been rough, but even the stormiest of oceans will eventually calm. We emerge into the warm Californian waters with experience under our belt and ready for smoother seas.

“Arms are the New Face”

Prescott and I spent an entire afternoon back in Neah Bay passing the time by reading all the magazines in the only grocery store in town. We didn’t purchase any, just piled them up on a table near the window and plowed through them, page by vibrant, contemporary page. It was kind of a pathetic way to spend the day, but we were desperate, and the magazines were like a portal back to the society that we were so sorely missing in drizzly Neah Bay.

Prescott learned a lot about Why the Beatles Broke Up, while I found out that Arms are the New Face. Cool, convenient for me, I thought, since my new lifestyle is sculpting me some killer arms (but a rather tired face). Living at sea has kicked my ass in many ways and made me stronger in others. Seasickness was probably the most effective diet one could ever hope for. Sheeting in the genoa in 20-knot winds (without self-tailing winches–RAARR), being in a semi-constant state of abdominal crunch for balance against the swell, and cranking the helm for hours at a time in a gale has made me tighten up, cramp up, and then get tougher.

Since Neah Bay, we’ve experienced the full gamut: A few days of utterly sublime downwind sailing (all accompanied by CS&N’s “Southern Cross” blaring loudly in my headphones), some rainy midnight gales that belong in the bigscreen, and a few warm, bobbing calms. Every time there’s a watch change, the boat gets a little less comfortable until the helmsman gets a hang of the perfect angle to cut so that the wind and waves hit us optimally. Each day it’s a different story, but we are all getting the hang of what sail wardrobe to fly in what conditions, what quarter of our stern we want to take the rollers from, and how best to wedge ourselves in our bunks for sleep when we can get it.

Sunrise behind an oncoming storm

Sunrise behind an oncoming storm

A full rainbow before the gale

A full rainbow before the gale

We made it to Eureka, California, by leaps and hops between flukey weather windows, running in to harbor at night from a couple storms, and then settling on a coast-hugging route to minimize our chances of getting stuck out at night. After a harrowing night outside of Newport, Oregon, we pulled in to Coos Bay to the warm hospitality of our friend Ian Leonard (who now happens to be in the Coast Guard at Coos Bay), and the next night we dropped the hook in the shelter of Port Orford.

Finally we made it to Crescent City, our first Californian port of call. After a very long and tricky entrance at dusk (between reefs and rocks everywhere), we turned the corner to the harbor and heard a deep THHHUNGK sound as the bow dipped forward and we stopped completely. Not two feet from our dock for the evening, we had run aground. No amount of power in reverse was going to unstick us from that gluey mud bottom. And as if our drama was supposed to become a comedy, we noticed a sunken ship at the dock not 50 feet from where were. The harbormaster came out and hollered, “You need a berth for the night?” I said, “Yeah, we will, but not for a bit… we’re aground right now…” I’m not sure if she didn’t hear me or what, but without answering she just turned and walked away! The family of fishermen on the breakwall next to us was laughing and chatting us up, saying they saw three people do the same thing that day. Luckily, we didn’t have to sit there for long; we checked the tides and they were rising rapidly enough to lift us off in all of 5 minutes.

The site of our grounding in Crescent City

The site of our grounding in Crescent City

This morning, I celebrated our arrival in Eureka with a dollar-long shower. The colors here are markedly Californian, and the sun is out, and the ever-present Northwestern crab shacks are dwindling in favor of beach-themed decor. Today is our day off; we get to be still, stretch our legs exploring Old Town, and get seasick all over again as we grow accustomed to being back on land. But aaahh: I can cook dinner without doing lunges,  I can crawl into bed without vaulting like a gymnast, and all my tired arms have to do is take pictures as we tour another new city.

(Stay tuned for video footage of Velella crossing the California border escorted by a pod of jumping porpoises!)

Guts and Weather

Newport, OR, shoreline

Newport, OR, shoreline

Our itinerary is shot, as we knew it would be as soon as we laid it out. But people want to know where you’re going to be, so.

This trip takes place rather late in the southerly sailing year, with many cruisers having winged south in early August instead of September. Unfortunately, the nice NNWesterlies that are supposed to be prevailing this time a year are few and scattered far between strong gusty southerlies, just for us. These southerlies are sucking around the edges of low pressure systems that are all related to this big damn storm in the Gulf of Alaska. It is incredibly obnoxious that the Gulf of Alaska is affecting our little sun-quest.

Hm. Southerlies. That sounds nice—at least warmer than the winds howling down from the North? Unfortunately no. For any armchair sailors out there who have never had the pleasure of sailing against a headwind, let me paint you a little word picture, if you will. Most of us have had the experience of going on a nice jog on a windy autumn day, feeling like you’re flying for the first half and barely noticing the wind, only to turn and head back directly into what feels like a wall of pressure forcing you to lean 45 degrees into it avoid being blown backwards as your feet leave the ground. This is what sailing south into a southerly headwind feels like. Except instead of dealing only with the whip and push of the wind directly back on you, you’ve got a gargantuan sideways up/down ocean swell (the kind sent as a special culminating treat from Japan), and opposing “wind waves” on the surface that can themselves become 4-6 feet tall (on top of the 8-10-foot ocean swell). All together, the motion feels like an erratically teetering top that’s lost its momentum to spin. And all the contents of your stomach are along for the ride (jf you’re lucky).

Choosing our weather windows has been the most difficult part of this trip for me. We have a professional router helping us to decipher the numerous and often conflicting models, but at the end of the day, it’s still up to us to decide what we’re comfortable going out in. Which quite honestly for me, isn’t much.

It’s a horrible call to have to make when everyone is chomping at the bit to leave. The last thing any of us want is a repeat of the (nine?) days we spent trapped in Neah Bay. Living offshore in the wind, waves, and miles of endless sea is one thing, but living on top of one another at the dock is almost unbearable. Nobody wants to stay another day, and it’s easy to think that “Ah, beating into strong headwinds all night in the fog and rain is better than being cooped up here. Adventure! What did we come for!” But the hair on the back of my neck stands up when I examine how many shipwrecks our route will take us over, and how few harbors along this “hostile” coast are suitable for refuge from a storm. So, I routinely come back to being the grouchy and inflexible Girl-Captain, pulling the plug and offering to pay for one more night of moorage and a pizza for morale, in order to spare us 12 hours of hell out there tonight. Let the winds tire themselves out while we’re tied up behind the sheltered breakwater, thank you.

Tomorrow the wind is supposed to clock to the east. A good time to run out on a comfortable morning reach, settle into our sea-living-rhythm, and gear up for another night watching the inky black nothing and feeling it all so much more vividly under a zillion undulating stars.

We’re getting ready to do this backward

Click on this link to see video footage of Velella crossing the treacherous Yaquina Bay bar in Newport, Oregon, as we entered our first port of call on Saturday afternoon. Going out against the surf tomorrow should be interesting.

The Young Man and the Sea

It wasn’t until the first night offshore that I became sea-sick. As soon as we left from Neah Bay, the six foot swells began knocking us from the side. They had an immediate effect on Meghan and Andrew, who fulfilled their duties ashen faced and wobbly. At first I felt fine. The nausea didn’t kick in until that night.

Since there were no ships in sight and conditions were calm, I decided to treat myself, using my 2 hour watch to make some headway on my Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars game. At my going away party in Seattle, my buddies presented me with a Nintendo DS, a portable gaming system. I wanted to sneak in some gaming while Meghan was asleep, since she had been staunch that I wasn’t allowed to play them at sea (video games being the apparent antithesis of sailing). She needn’t have worried.

There’s a point about 20 miles off the Pacific Coast where one continental plate meets the other. Here, the land rapidly drops away and the ocean goes from just over a hundred feet to nearly a thousand. This has a substantial effect on the large ocean swells coming in from Japan. As they hit this shelf, the bottom of the wave hundreds of feet down comes to a sudden halt. The waves become confused, doubling up on one another. At the surface, it feels like the waves are coming from all directions, with no rhythm or regularity in their timing. This was precisely what was happening as I began my watch. Velella sat at the edge of the continental shelf, jouncing around like a rogue paddleball. Hoping to escape these harsh conditions in the fantasy land of Nintendo, I flicked on my DS, hi-jacked a car, and rocketed down the streets of Liberty City.

The combination proved disastrous. It took me about half an hour to notice it, but by the time I did it was too late. The rough and tumble motion of the boat, combined with my crazy driving and shoot-outs with the police, did me in.  I was incredibly motion sick. My legs went out from under me. My stomach felt weak and precarious. I began repeatedly burping. Meghan came up to relieve me of my shift and I ran straight down into the cabin. I collapsed into the V-birth headfirst, still wearing all my clothes. I lay there for a couple hours, waiting to recover. But my recovery would take several days, and I began to realize that sea-legs are not given but earned.

In total we spent 72 hours at sea. My memories are few. Alternating between restless sleep and the adrenaline-fueled night watches promotes a state of unreality. One of the highlights, though, was Andrew’s fish.

He purchased his fishing pole while we were still in Neah Bay, with lures for Salmon and Tuna. As far as I could tell it was the first fishing pole he’d ever owned, and his vision of a voyage sustained on freshly caught seafood seemed optimistic. However his faith was not unfounded, as we discovered in our first day at sea.

I was asleep, just off of my morning shift at the helm. Suddenly I startled awake to cries “Prescott, you have to see this!” Expecting a whale sighting or other creature of the sea, I dashed up in my long underwear to see what the fuss was. Andrew had been trolling all morning and he’d caught a monster of a tuna. He reeled it up to the boat and I grabbed its gills and pulled it out of the water.

Now, there are no pictures (the salt water corroded the memory card), so unfortunately this remains another fisherman’s tale. However I pulled it out of the water and can attest that it weighed around 30 pounds. Once we had it on deck, we were unsure what to do next. It was still flopping around, so at Andrew’s suggestion I grabbed a bottle of rum and poured it into its gills. Then he turned to me.

“Know how to gut a fish?”

“No. You?”

Talk about putting the cart before the horse. I rushed below to see if any of the sailing books had instructions on fish cleaning. The most I could find was a single picture with the caption “Make sure to open up the main artery beneath the gills immediately, to drain the blood before it coagulates.”

“Andrew! We need to open up the main artery!” I shouted up.

“Great bring up a knife.”

Sure enough, after wiggling the blade around in the fish’s skull, blood began to flow. Heavily. A dark purple syrup, it oozed down the side of our dinghy and onto the teak. I ran down yet again to get some napkins but by the time I came back up, the fish was sliding around in a river of blood. While I attempt to prevent the staining of Meghan’s teak deck, Andrew got to work butchering. Starting at the tail and moving up to the head, he cut a ragged line through the bottom of the fish. Then he reached in and began scooping out anything that looked like a gut.

Eventually the fish looked like a raw slab of butcher’s meat. We figured that since it resembled (somewhat) meat you might buy at the store, it was ready to eat. So Andrew diced it into filets and we started into the juicy, fatty tuna meat. I’ve had good sushi. And I’ve purchased fish right off the boat at Pike Place Market and seared it up. But I’ve never had anything as fresh and juicy and full of raw tuna-y goodness as the meat Andrew cut off that fish. It was like eating a slab of fishy butterscotch and having it melt in your mouth. It was delicious. I was feeling weak from the slaughtering  and the running around. I expected that raw tuna would not help my stomach. Perhaps it was a rite of passage. Perhaps Neptune was looking down on and smiling at my enthusiasm, that I had a raw chunk of his bounty dangling from my mouth. But after that tuna I immediately felt better. I was now a true seaman.